We are at the pointy end of the season, in a battle for the fifth and final playoff spot, our only way of squeaking into the the post-season tournament and having a shot at the MLS Cup. In North America, making the playoffs is second only to winning the final. You don't have to be a great team to make them, merely adequate. But a berth in the post-season theoretically gives you a chance at the big prize. And a season is defined by its postseason appearances, no matter how trivial the actual playoff run is.
For the Whitecaps, the chances of us winning the MLS Cup, it has to be said, are slim. And holding on to our current spot - fifth in the MLS West - guarantees us one away game probably in Dallas, or possibly Salt Lake City. While we have made the playoffs once before, I can't remember a bigger anti-climax than a faded defeat in Los Angeles which was our reward for a late season push in 2012. If just making the playoffs is the goal, I'm not on board.
By the standards of the way the rest of the world measures soccer quality, we are a mid table team trying to improve in a league that caps salaries. It is really hard to do this unless you can find some way to get extra money to be able to spend on quality players and squad depth. While making the playoffs may get us a home game or two if we're lucky, there is still a way we can improve our financial standing this year and that is by finishing above Toronto in the standings.
You see, by doing that we will qualify for the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. Normally we would qualify by winning the Canadian Championship, but because that tournament is being moved to later in the summer starting 2015, the Canadian entrant for 2015-16 qualifies by this year's MLS standings. (After this year we're back to normal...)
There are two good reason for focusing on that goal. First, if we qualify we will be entered into a three team group and play home and away matches against Mexican, Central American or Caribbean teams. The thought of seeing a Mexican giant like Club America, Leon, Cruz Azul or Santos Laguna is tasty. Likewise we could draw KendallWaston's former team, Saprissa, or Darren Mattocks' childhood club of Portmore making for some interesting match ups.
And as if that isn't cool enough, qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League gets us allocation money. No one knows how much of course, given the MLS's opaque allocation rules, but it is not insubstantial. You can see the effect it has had on teams like Seattle, RSL, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City who have qualified over the last few years. It can help build a squad over the long term. In fact while Seattle were developing their squad they made a point of winning the US Open Cup which got them one of the four USA berths in the competition and allocation money for the first few years of their MLS existence. It has helped them build depth and has helped the MLS' cause in being competitive against the Mexican giants who roam through our continent with no salary cap restrictions at all.
So it's great that our push for the playoffs also helps us finish ahead of Toronto FC (who were helpfully defeated by LA on the weekend). But because this is the MLS there is a twist in the tail. You see, if we MISS the playoffs we can also get allocation money. Think this doesn't matter? Look at what happened to DC United this year. Last year they finished dead last with 3 wins, which got them some money for missing the playoffs. But they also won the US Open Cup and so qualified for the CCL and took home another load of allocation money for that. And look where they are now. Locked up their playoff spot this weekend had a great run near the top of the table all season long. So it's an intriguing proposition - as a fan are your eyes on that prized fifth place finish and the subsequent single postseason away game? Or are you watching the bigger table to see where the dreaded Reds are and hoping they continue to drop points in the stretch?